​Exclaim!'s Top 20 Pop & Rock Albums, Part One

Best of 2018

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Dec 4, 2018

Today (December 4), we begin rolling out the best of the best albums of 2018, and we're beginning with our Top 20 Pop & Rock Albums of the year, from 20 to 11 — including favourites from boygenius, Arctic Monkeys, Parquet Courts and more.

Tune in tomorrow (December 5) for albums 10 through number one, then December 6 for our Top 10 Folk & Country Albums and December 7 for our Top 10 Metal and Hardcore Albums

Top 20 Pop & Rock Albums of 2018, 20 to 11:  
20. Shame
Songs of Praise
(Dead Oceans)

With the release of Songs of Praise this January, South London's Shame launched their quest to infiltrate the ears and hearts of jaded, post-punk enthusiasts across the globe. The young quintet of long-time mates' razor-sharp British wit and technical skill permeates their debut full-length, whose succinct 10 tracks burst with potency.
Propelled by melodious force, lead singer Charlie Steen barks, wails and spits introspective musings on the world at large. "Do you overuse the technique of not thinking before you speak?" he asks on the delirious, hazy "Friction," before turning on his heel during "Lampoon," a frenetic burst of short-lived chaos, to menacingly declare that "[his] tongue will never grow tired."

There's no shortage of white male guitar bands, but the urgency and unrefined nature of Shame's music proves vital; Songs of Praise is an exceptional first offering that cements the band's status as ones to watch.
Ava Muir

19. Bernice
Puff LP: In the air without a shape
(Arts & Crafts)

Bernice have their heads in the clouds on this long-awaited follow-up to 2011's What Was That, but their eclectic mix of jazz-inflected instrumentation and left-field textural synth experimentation puts a trick wind in the sails, and pushes Robin Dann's contemplative, honeyed vocal lines into a range of whimsically glorious horizons. It all artfully defies the perceived formal restrictions of pop and R&B music.
The songs on Puff LP come from places of profound, rainy sadness, deep introspection, play and daydream fancy, and Bernice manoeuvre them with a steadfast warmth that invites you in to feel it out from a place of comfort.
Tom Beedham

18. Young Fathers
Cocoa Sugar
(Ninja Tune)

Cocoa Sugar is the third in an inventive string of records from Edinburgh trio Young Fathers that eclipse genre categorizations. Leaning in more of a pop direction than their previous work, the album experiments with a rich palette of vocalizations and textures. Its songs grapple with timely topics like racism and immigration, and are shot through with the group's unique point of view and ability to convey ideas viscerally. The voices of Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and Graham Hastings take on different characteristics, dipping into R&B and pop hooks on "In My View," playing with gospel on "Lord" and imbuing an organ-led dirge with passion on "Tremolo."
Accomplished rappers and vocalists who harness the absurdity of the current cultural and political climate, Young Fathers have created their own sonic space. Cocoa Sugar's steady pacing and varied sonic textures — from the bass and beat-heavy "Wire" to the earnest layered vocals leading "Picking You" — grant listeners time in the trio's unique world, one whose communality is sorely needed.
Anna Alger

17. Soccer Mommy
(Fat Possum)

Soccer Mommy, aka Sophie Allison, processes a lot on her hypnotic debut studio LP, Clean. The Nashville-based artist is in love; she's in lust; she's annoyed; and she absolutely doesn't want to be your fucking dog.

Whatever the feeling driving her songs, Allison coolly delivers them with confidence and charm. The album is a soft pop-rock combo of slow burners ("Wildflowers," "Scorpio Rising") and upbeat, impossibly catchy tracks ("Cool," "Last Girl") that flow from one to the next with ease. It's this blend of tender sounds and Allison's commanding lyricism that allow Clean to shine. 
Laura Stanley

16. boygenius
boygenius EP

Boygenius, the collaborative project of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, is a shining example of what happens when artists naturally come together and find an instant, perfect chemistry. Their respective careers have developed in parallel so far — self-doubt, vulnerability, heartbreak, and faith are all common, integral themes to each artist's individual work, and together they push each other to wonderful new heights.
On "Stay Down," Baker's affecting intensity is heightened by the full band behind her, and on Bridgers' unyielding confessional "Me & My Dog," the stark emptiness is filled when Baker and Dacus join her voice in beautiful unison. The three trade off verses on "Souvenir," with each of their crushing testimonies reciprocated in solidarity, and later, Dacus's dead-level earnestness leads the trinity of intimacy on the revelatory "Salt in the Wound." It's one of the many magical moments of camaraderie on the all-too-short six-track EP; we can only hope this supergroup is more than just a one-off for these brilliant young songwriters.
Chris Gee

15. Car Seat Headrest
Twin Fantasy

One of the biggest mistakes you could make as a rock fan this year would be to assume Twin Fantasy is no more than a slightly cleaned up re-release of one of Will Toledo's pre-record label Bandcamp demos as Car Seat Headrest. In truth, what's on display here is kind of unprecedented: a completely re-recorded, from-the-ground-up remake of the lo-fi cult classic.
This new iteration is a triumph, sounding better than ever by marrying the brilliant lyrics from the original with the phenomenal musicianship and refined vocals Toledo and his band displayed on 2016's highly praised Teens of Denial. With new life in them, songs like "Bodys" evolve from a lo-fi experiment you might find cute to riveting, heart-pounding jams that deserve a spot on any "song of the year" list. 
Twin Fantasy is an absolute best-case scenario for Car Seat Headrest fans, whether they've heard the original or not.
Corey Van den Hoogenband

14. Parquet Courts
Wide Awake!
(Rough Trade)

At the conclusion of "Total Football," the captivating introduction to Parquet Courts' wondrous and outspoken album Wide Awake!, there's a lyrical barrage worth contemplating: "Swapping parts and roles is not acting but rather emancipation from expectation / Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive / Those who find discomfort in your goals of liberation will be issued no apology / Fuck Tom Brady."
The abrupt shift from empowering manifesto to nihilistic provocation is in keeping with the kind of agit-prop Parquet Courts are up to on this, their seventh proper album. Wide Awake! is a letter-perfect, punk-infused musical contemplation of modern times, in which social uprisings are actually affecting positive change. Produced by Danger Mouse, it's urgent and potent music that's thought-provoking and danceable, and whose rage is measured by a pointed optimism. As such, an easy corollary can be made between the album's coy title and being "woke" — and it's a joyous conversation starter.
Vish Khanna

13. Arctic Monkeys
Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

When Arctic Monkeys announced their sixth album, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino, the world let out a collective "WTF?!" The British band, once known for clanging garage rock and detail-rich lyrics about British youth culture, had made a piano-based concept album about a luxury resort on the moon, with song titles including "The Ultracheese" and "The World's First Ever Monster Truck Front Flip." It seemed, after the massive mainstream success of 2013's AM, that they might have totally lost the plot.
But as alien as its lavish psych-pop sound is, Tranquility Base is never alienating. Written primarily on piano, Alex Turner turned into a lounge lizard crooner seemingly overnight, borrowing liberally from the ornate arrangements of David Bowie's Hunky Dory and the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. Aggressively weird yet catchy and accessible, Arctic Monkeys shot for the moon and finessed an impressive landing.
Alex Hudson

12. Snail Mail

Some songwriters spend years aiming for the sort of lucidity Baltimore-based musician Lindsay Jordan effortlessly parades on Lush, her debut LP under her Snail Mail moniker. Jordan's layered, vivid power chords are heard in complete fidelity, the hooks presented with an informed ease, rejecting an unspoken notion that a 19 year-old could only write songs in a naïve and overtly poppy space.
Lyrically, it's a radiant navigation of the maze of youth, written entirely in first person. It all makes for a provocative listen, as the songs invite listeners into their intimate space before dazzling them with calculated, chiming guitars. It's all wonderfully ponderous and immersive, as Jordan blissfully raises characteristically rhetorical questions like, "Is there anything better than coming clean?" The answers don't matter; the feelings do.
Connor Atkinson

11. Tirzah

Tirzah's Devotion is nothing if not alive — with all of life's jagged truth. It screeches and whoops; it ripples with ruminating piano loops; it chatters like aliens are crawling under its skin.
Tirzah's R&B-esque melisma floats and flutters here, warping words into pure lilt, making her written lyrics look cut short. What can't be put into words is how her singing skims and skitters up and around, how single syllables can last for whole breaths, rising and dipping like a hand swooping through the wind outside an open car window. Often here, auto-tune renders Tirzah's voice extraterrestrial as she accuses, betrays and yearns, but somehow, Devotion never feels in flux.
Emilie Kneifel

Check out the rest of our list, albums 10 through 1, here.

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